Nothing much is at stake in Iron Man 3. The explosions only affect the bad guys (all an out-of-iron Tony Stark needs to do to deflect one is hide behind the door of a bag-ice freezer). No one of any real importance to this franchise (or that of the bigger Marvel superheroes franchise that it’s part of) is going to expire.
The timing of Tony Stark/Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr., and his cohorts is as flawless as ever. Iron Man 3 requires not just a suspension of disbelief but an investment of faith in humanity's intrinsic skill and durability. It makes for an experience that is fine, but lacking tension—it's only dazzling during a sequence in which Iron Man jets around the sky to save about a dozen of people that are free falling from a besieged plane. Iron Man likens his devised human chain to a barrel of monkeys. Take a wild guess as to whether or not his showstopping heroics succeed.
As much as the self-conscious weight of the Christopher Nolan style of superhero movie making grates on my nerves for taking itself a little too seriously, the Marvel movie universe that spans all of the Avengers (including the Iron Man, Captain America and Thor franchise offshoots) doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be exciting. We’re asked to roll our eyes with it (“You breathe fire?” Don Cheadle's Stark ally Jim Rhodes asks with incredulity as his villain du jour reveals the extent of his power), not at it, but we’re still rolling our eyes. Its attempts at gravity, whether in distant examinations of the burden of superherodom on one’s self and relationships, or in balls-out action sequences that seem to want to define “high-octane” with moving imagery, come in flashes. Switch gears if you’re so committed and care, or continue rolling your eyes. I choose the latter.
Iron Man 3 is Leathal Weapon writer Shane Black’s take on the series (3 is the first not directed by John Favreau, though he is in it, memorably sporting a bolo tie and Pulp Fiction slickback in a flashback). It is wittier and quicker-paced than the other two and it has the bonkers benefit of Ben Kingsley as comic relief. Despite it bookend voiceovers, in which Stark discusses his self-created demons, it is as frivolous as ever. At least it doesn’t telegraph what’s coming next in the series in the tacky manner of its predecessor (and for that matter Captain America and Thor)—Iron Man 2 was a feature-length commercial for The Avengers, and it felt like it. There is a definitive finality to Iron Man 3—this arm of the Marvel franchise could end here, and it would make sense. It’s not going to happen, but it’s an attractive fantasy and its momentary containment is refreshing. These Marvel movies are the cinematic equivalent of a promiscuous cosmopolitan dating scene, always looking to the next best thing, but never achieving much beyond a superficial good time. The relentless pace, in which they are released makes each one feel less special. The fatigue of familiarity is just around the corner for these movies, especially if they continue treading water, however spectacular their form.
The greatest contribution of the Iron Man series its teasing out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s likability at every turn. For someone who so often struggles to display her natural charisma, these movies are vital for proving that she is, in fact, still a human being. The same goes for Robert Downey, Jr., though he’s seemingly never struggled with such expression. He seems to chose roles that allow him to be his off-the-cuff self, or at least, the off-the-cuff self that he and his people want us to believe that he is. He is the anti-Tom Cruise: Cruise chooses empty roles that he then disappears into, while Downey leads with his persona and lets the role fall around him. Iron Man would be far less dynamic of a series without him. Tony Stark’s spoken refrain is Downey’s implicit one: He is Iron Man. But in the end, that’s nice and fun and good for him, but nothing much beyond that.